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Authors: Laura Thompson

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical

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BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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So there is scant sense of any educational life, except as lived by the narrator Fanny, who attends what Uncle Matthew calls an ‘awful middle-class establishment’ where she learns to ‘put the milk in first’. The novel
mention, as it were in passing, the fact that the Radlett children read extensively from the library – ‘a good representative nineteenth-century library, which had been made by their grandfather, a most cultivated man’ – although Nancy goes on to say, tellingly, that this reading in ‘fits and starts’, this auto-didacticism, was no real substitute for a proper education. The Radletts/Mitfords had knowledge and ‘gilded it with their own originality’, but they were incapable of concentration and could not bear to be bored. The sense that they are thus improperly equipped for life – modern life, at any rate – permeates the book and infects Linda, certainly, who has an instinctive intelligence but very little sense.

This, then, is Nancy’s oblique attack upon her own posh-feral upbringing, with its
attitude to learning, its governesses and its anti-school snobbery (‘my father thought one got thick calves from playing hockey,’ she later said. ‘Well, he was very much against these thick calves’
). In fact there was nothing odd about being home-taught, especially for girls of that class and time. Lady Diana Cooper once remarked upon the parental fear that if a girl went to school she would start wearing bangles (which, as Diana Mosley observed, would have been headline news if Nancy had said it).

Some of the Mitford governesses
inadequate, such as the one who taught Unity, Jessica and Deborah to shoplift (‘jiggery-pokery’) and another, small of stature, whom Unity would pick up and put on the sideboard. But the Batsford governesses were very good. Vanda Sereza, or ‘Zella’, who taught French and later married an Englishman, became a close friend of Nancy’s (and visited Diana in Holloway). Miss Mirams, also at Batford, was described by Diana as ‘rather severe’ but nonetheless prepared Tom for his prep school (Lockers Park) where he excelled in the entrance exam. Miss Hussey, trained in the PNEU
programme of which Sydney approved, taught at Asthall in the early 1920s, then Swinbrook ten years on, thus catching all the girls except Nancy. She was entirely competent, despite the difficulty of adjusting lessons to such varied ages and abilities (Pam, she later recalled, ‘had been kept rather behind.’
) And Miss Hussey did not, as
Hons and Rebels
had it, pass out when she saw Unity’s snake, Enid, wrapped around a lavatory chain (the snake was Diana’s, ‘just a little grass snake’, and nobody fainted at the sight of it). Jessica, again, was making merry with the facts.
The Pursuit of Love
had already started this particular hare when Nancy wrote that the Radlett governesses would scamper away after a couple of days, terrified of Uncle Matthew and his stock whips. Jessica – a highly gifted writer, but essentially a journalist rather than a creative – took hold of such flights of fancy and soared away with them; then called them autobiography.

Of course Nancy was also, beneath the flimsy disguise of fiction, writing what readers believed to be a true account of her childhood. It
true, in essence. The points where the truth bends are therefore not always easy to establish. Take the passage about the Radlett/Mitford education – Nancy
mean it in a way. She regretted the lack of a steady depth of knowledge such as her clever male friends possessed (‘you must remember I am an
uneducated woman
’, she wrote plaintively to Evelyn Waugh), and which she saw in her brother Tom. At the same time,
The Pursuit of Love
tells another story beneath the surface. The properly educated Fanny is a delightful person, but she has no vestige of the heady Radlett/Mitford charm, in which Nancy herself took barely concealed pride (and from which she made a very good living). Furthermore, when Uncle Matthew asks Fanny to tell him about George III, all she can come up with is ‘He was King. He went mad,’ whereas Linda (‘you’re uneducated, thank God’) bursts forth with a scattering of disorganized but far more engaging facts. As for the idea that the children never learned the habit of concentrated endeavour – Nancy could write a book in three months, Jessica’s journalistic research became formidable, Diana’s articles are models of precision and, for Deborah, running Chatsworth would have been hugely demanding. These four were higher achievers than the average. If they were only interested in things that ignited their imagination, this is true of most people. What, then, would Roedean have added to the mix? The sisters were each other’s influence and encouragement. Not always in a benign way, but it was Unity – the schoolgoer – who suffered most from this. As Aunt Sadie says in
The Pursuit of Love
, in a spasm of anxiety about her children’s wayward upbringing, ‘Do you honestly imagine it makes the smallest difference when they are grown-up?’ Comes the reply: ‘Probably not to your children, demons one and all...’


Nancy did not really want to be Fanny, although she took pleasure in her, and in her kindly, sensible aunt-guardian, Emily, who roundly defends the decision to send her to school. The connection between Fanny and Emily – perfectly done, and pretty much perfect – was wishful thinking on Nancy’s part. It was also, in part, an attack upon her relationship with her mother.

As did Jessica, Nancy felt resentment about her early years, and this grew stronger with maturity: in later life she expressed the desire to write a straightforward autobiography. But whereas Jessica took aim at the whole Mitford clan and its conservative milieu
Nancy focussed ever more closely upon Sydney. This enigmatic woman was viewed quite differently by every one of her daughters; she was a symbol of their separate memories of a shared past and, although the least-known member of the Mitford family, she was the focal point for the rest.

When Nancy was near the end of her life and Jessica deep into middle age, the sisters formed an epistolary alliance against their mother. It is natural enough for people to look back, as it were, in search of a key that will unlock the mystery of their own selves. Nevertheless the back and forth of letters between these two sisters does put one in mind of the ‘leagues’ created by the Mitford children against whoever was considered an enemy, or ‘Counter-Hon’. In this case, the Counter-Hon-in-Chief was Sydney.

In 1971, eight years after their mother’s death, Nancy wrote to Jessica that she had never loved Sydney for the simple reason that Sydney had never loved her: had never hugged her as a child, was cold and ‘sarky’ with her, and had generally given an impression of having scant affection for her first daughter. ‘I don’t reproach her for it, people have a perfect right to dislike their children...’ Jessica replied that she had loathed Sydney when growing up, especially as an adolescent, but in adulthood had become ‘immensely fond of her’. However: ‘The thing that
absolutely burned into my soul
’, wrote Jessica, ‘was the business of not being allowed to go to school.’ The letter continued with a story of how, aged about eleven, Jessica had dreamed of becoming a scientist. Accordingly she had bicycled off to see the headmaster of a grammar school in Burford, near Swinbrook, where she learned that she could be admitted after passing a single exam. She returned home in triumph to ask her mother’s formal permission: instantly refused, with no reason given. If true, this does indeed shine an unsympathetic light on Sydney’s character as a mother. More likely it was exaggerated, or even invented – would Jessica really have stormed the citadel of a headmaster’s study? Deborah certainly did not believe it, and anyway according to her recollection Jessica
attending a school at the age of eleven (when the pair of them were day girls in High Wycombe). But the point about the story is not so much the facts, as the fact of Jessica’s enduring resentment.

Nancy, too, was honestly suffering, allowing her bright brain to brood over the past. She knew, of course, that she had been raised in an environment and class that did not encourage intense closeness between mother and child. Nancy would have ridiculed our infant-centric universe (although, in
The Pursuit of Love
, she created such a world); her problem with her mother was not quite of that nature. Nancy intuited an emotional disconnection between them and, being the proud, contained woman that she was – not unlike her image of Sydney, in fact – she behaved in a way that might have been designed to turn this feeling into reality. For example she wrote an essay, ‘Blor’, published in 1962: a homage to the Mitford nanny (Laura Dicks) that was also a critique of the Mitford mother. Nancy described how, before Blor’s arrival in 1910, an ‘Unkind Nanny’ had been in charge of the children. This woman was sacked after ‘unmistakable sounds of torture [had been] going on upstairs for a few months’. Was
true? Nancy’s writing style is so light and ironic as to leave the necessary space for scepticism – yet that ‘few months’, with its suggestion of prolonged indifference, is a deliberate sharp stab, as is the description of the Unkind Nanny’s dismissal by David Mitford. ‘My mother retired to bed, as she often did when things became dramatic, leaving my father to perform the execution.’ After this came Blor. She was then thirty-nine and regarded as possibly too old to look after four children, but she got the job in the very moment when she laid eyes upon Diana and said, in an exhalation of sincere delight: ‘Oh! What a lovely baby!’ (Diana, as Nancy later put it, was ‘born beautiful, always beautiful’.

The praise given to Blor is by implication an attack upon Sydney, who wrote to Nancy that she had given ‘a charming account of the dearest Blor, though somehow she remains a shadowy figure’. (All right,
do it, Nancy might have been tempted to reply.) What comes across in Blor is warmth, which according to Nancy – and indeed to Jessica – is what their mother lacked. Blor also had a nanny-ish imperturbability, with her ‘who’s going to look at you, darling?’ (to Diana, on her wedding morning) and her ‘you’ll be cold’ (to Nancy, dressed for her coming-out ball). This quality was exaggerated to high comic effect in Nancy’s 1951 novel
The Blessing
, in which the English nanny is transported to a great Provençal mansion, refuses a magnificent French lunch and asks if the chef can cook her a ‘floury potato’. The real Blor could be funny in that way, but she also had depths of concealed wisdom. One wonders what she thought about some of what she saw in that household. ‘I do wish you wouldn’t keep going to Germany, darling,’ she once said to Unity. ‘All those men.’ Which, as Nancy commented, was pretty close to the mark.

Blor died (aged nearly ninety) before the publication of this essay, but a few years earlier Nancy had sent her a copy of
The Blessing
, saying that the nanny in the novel is ‘very much unlike you, darling’. Not entirely the case, and Blor probably recognized as much, but Nancy had sought to give reassurance.

She did so for her mother too, although not at all in the same way; for a start she did not warn Sydney beforehand that the 1962 article was being written. Having sent a typescript, to which Sydney reacted badly, Nancy responded in a muddle of guilt and irritation, semi-apologizing in the reluctant, furious way of a teenager (rather than a woman of fifty-seven). A couple of weeks later she wrote again, clearly very anxious although trying to glide over it with incidental gossip. As much as anything, she was upset by the fact that Sydney had been far less critical of
Hons and Rebels
, a really tough book. One’s impression is that although Sydney was the person who had been hurt, Nancy’s own distress had become the greater; nor was there anything that she could do to make it better, as she herself had created the entire situation. That was how it was between these two. It was a kind of emotional stalemate, and what made it worse for Nancy was the sense that her mother did not even much care, that she asked simply to be left alone (‘I wish only one thing, that you would exclude me from your books’) rather than prodded and niggled for attention. With the exception of Jessica, the surviving Mitford girls were wholly on Sydney’s side.

‘It is SUCH a shame to upset her & doesn’t bear thinking of,’ Diana wrote to Deborah about the ‘Blor’ essay. To Nancy, Deborah wrote in her usual way, with earthbound sense expressed in droll Mitfordese, making it clear that their mother was upset, and that this was not a good thing. Pamela, reported Diana, had been extremely distressed by the spectacle of Nancy and Jessica complaining about their childhoods at a dinner party: ‘It’s not TRUE,’ Pam had wailed.

When Sydney died in 1963, and despite – or perhaps because of – the guilt that she felt about the relationship with her mother, Nancy began to think more and more about writing her memoirs. These would be set mostly in adulthood, from the time of her success with
The Pursuit of Love
, but also flashing back to the past, using it to explain what she became. The book never happened, but by 1971 she was exchanging fervid thoughts about it with her partner in pain, Jessica.

Diana’s contempt was excoriating for the two ageing ladies in the Hons’ Cupboard. ‘Decca and Naunce are a couple of bitter old creatures who can’t forgive life for being so cruel & look for a scapegoat and find it in – Muv! Really rather rubbish.’ This was to Deborah, who took a similar view but expressed it more merrily: it seemed to bother her less than it did Diana. Or perhaps, as a relatively young and extremely busy woman, she simply had a lot else to think about. She addressed a series of sharp, good-humoured correctives on the subject – for example, she gave Nancy her sceptical take on Jessica’s urgent desire to be a child scientist – and basically, translated into modern parlance, suggested that they should both
get over themselves.
Which was good advice. At the same time Nancy was a writer, and writers see things differently. Everything is material; nothing, as Muriel Spark had it, is wasted. In that sense one must regret Nancy’s lost autobiography, for herself as well as for her readers.

BOOK: Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
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